Roscoe Brown Jr., a squadron commander in the legendary, all-black Tuskegee Airmen and an educator with an eye on civil rights, has died at age 94, his family said yesterday.
Brown died Saturday night at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx after a fall that broke his hip and sapped energy from the way he wanted to live — mobile and working a crowd — said his son Dennis Brown of Sag Harbor.
Many credit Brown, a Sag Harbor and Bronx resident, with being the first pilot to shoot down an advanced German jet during in-air combat with his P-51 Mustang propeller plane, a World War II dogfight recreated in “Red Tails,” George Lucas’ movie about the all-black unit.
But when he returned home, the World War II veteran was in an endurance war — against racism and inequality. To street beggars who directed racial slurs at him, he gave money with the advice “try to help yourself,” his children said. He created programs to give youths scholarships and recognition, whether it was with friends such as Yankees owner George Steinbrenner or as the president of Bronx Community College, his friends and family said. He hosted television programs, including “African-American Legends” and the Emmy-winning “Black Arts,” his friends said.
“We all have the same hearts,” Brown wrote in his Tuskegee bio sheet, “and we’ve got to do more to relate to each other.”
His evergreen advice for how to live was from the “three Ps” the Tuskegee airmen had learned: Persistence, pride and practice equals excellence.
In a statement, actor Cuba Gooding Jr., who played Major Emanuelle Stance in “Red Tails,” described Brown’s life as “a testament to how courage and determination was defined by the daily efforts of these men. . . . My life was forever changed not only when I first heard of their trial, tribulations and extraordinary accomplishments, but by having been given the God given gift of standing in their presence on occasion time and time again.”
In 1952, Brown, then an education professor at New York University, worked on a lawsuit against the city of Baltimore that eventually persuaded the Supreme Court to expand its 1954 desegregation ruling (Oliver Brown v. Topeka Board of Education) beyond public schools.
“He did so many things, opening doors and proving you can thrive in the face of adversity,” said daughter Doris Bodine of Cambria Heights, Queens, whose nickname, “Bunnie,” was painted on Brown’s World War II plane. “He was a true Renaissance man.”
In an era when the nation was in love with Charles Lindbergh and planes, blacks were not allowed to fly, but a young Roscoe did, said Dennis Brown.
As the story goes, the family was at a Virginia airfield when his father told him he’d ask a nearby pilot for a ride but that he must pretend he was the child of a French diplomat. “If you say anything, make it sound French,” his father told Roscoe. When the pilot asked if he wanted a ride, the boy replied “Oui.”
That was a teaching moment, his son said: “He realized regardless of what your station in life is, if you have something to do and something to give, maybe some people will recognize that.”
Brown volunteered to fight in the war in 1944 because he, like many other black men, dreamed of a double “V” — victory against the enemy overseas and victory in showing blacks could fight and deserved rights.
Brown commanded the 100th Fighter Squadron, escorting bombers and other planes to their bombing missions.
After the war, Brown worked as an investigator with the New York City Department of Welfare, got a doctorate in exercise physiology and worked for 27 years as a professor of education at New York University, where he was the director of the Institute of Afro-American Affairs. Tapped in 1977 to head Bronx Community College, the avid runner set up an annual 10K run there that bears his name. Brown also co-founded the American College of Sports Medicine, volunteered with the Jackie Robinson Foundation — the baseball player’s brother-in-law was a TuskegeeAirman — and worked with the nonprofit Libraries for the Future.
In his last months, he’d grill hospital officials on the women and minorities in their offices — ordering them to boost the numbers — and talked to other Tuskegee members about setting up a new initiative to get more minorities in predominantly white fields, such as aeronautics, his son said.
In two of his most treasured moments, the Tuskegee Airmen unit in 2007 was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, which Brown helped design, and members went as guests to the inauguration of the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama.
As usual, Brown did not dwell on the downside after a heart attack in March and a subsequent fall, his family said.
In the past few days, he told his family he was going to “leave” and phoned his friends, toasted the Jets football team with sherry and ordered the nurse not to disturb him with bio-sign readings so he could listen to the Mets game Saturday.
Then at one point in the baseball game, he retooled a phrase he had used as the pilot of his plane in World War II, “Red 7 out.” This time, said his son, a doctor, Brown told his family “I’m out.” Minutes later, he died.
Dennis Brown said his father told his children not to give him a funeral, but a “jazz and memorial” concert in which no one would talk — later relenting in a joking bargaining session to allow his son to speak only to introduce musicians, Dennis Brown said.
Brown was predeceased by his wife, Laura, and is also survived by two other children, Diane McDougall of Washington, D.C., and Donald Brown of Ewing, New Jersey.